Who is Stockpiling and Sharing Private Information About New York Students?
Most New York City public school parents don't know that their child's personal information will be available to third-party companies through a new data-sharing initiative. Parents and advocates opposed to the new initiative believe it will put sensitive student information at risk and allow companies to capitalize on data that parents never consented to release. The New York State Education Department says that districts have been sharing this kind of information for nearly a decade, and that the new initiative simply enables that data to be shared in a safer, more efficient fashion. If it really is that simple, parents and advocates wonder, why hasn't the state been more forthcoming with details about the project?
"The real outrage of it is that the whole spin of this is that it's being done to help kids. And, yet they refuse to tell their parents about it." Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters, tells the Voice. "The idea that they wouldn't tell parents about it and allow them the right to consent, shows me that either it's not being done for kids at all, or that they don't trust parents to make the right choices for their child." The initiative calls for inBloom Inc., previously known as the Shared Learning Collaborative, to build educational databases for nine different states including New York. NYSED will use inBloom to power its Education Data Portal. The $100 million inBloom initiative is funded primarily through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and federal grants. Disciplinary records, attendance records, special-needs records, testing records, addresses, phones numbers, email-addresses and birth-dates are among some of the data that can be shared with the third-party vendors contracting with state and city districts. According to NYSED, the EDP will:
"...allow New York to focus its limited resources on the delivery of innovative data tools and curriculum content, including customizable dashboards for educators, parents, and students; early warning supports to help provide targeted resources to students at risk of not completing high school ready for college and careers; electronic transcript transfer between high schools and New York's public colleges and universities; and curriculum/instructional resources to support our professional development and student learning goals."
Earlier this month, inBloom, Inc. hosted forums at the South by Southwest education festival in Houston -- where education technology companies were invited to see how inBloom databases can be used to develop various educational tools. A recent Reuters report revealed that venture capitalists have invested more than $400 million dollars into the business of education technology. Opponents of inBloom are outraged by the prospect of corporations profiting from student information that parents never consented to release. "Our children are not commodities. They are not something to be bought and sold on the market place," Councilman Steve Levin said during a rally against the initiative last week. "Their achievement and their data is not something that's negotiable or something that should be for sale. This is about transparency. This about their rights as students and parents in New York City." NYSED has a different take. "I'm not sure there's consent involved. This is regular student information that when parents register a child for school. They give up," Tom Dunn, spokesman for NYSED tells the Voice. The state maintains that the project is fully compliant with the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Some activists believe that data-sharing initiatives such as inBloom are only possible because the U.S. Department of Education made amendments to FERPA in 2008 and 2011 to relax protections. The Electronic Privacy Information Center is currently suing the USED accusing the department of illegally reinterpreting what constituents an "authorized representative" and an "education program." EPIC argues that the new interpretations fail to adequately enforce the law's intended mandate to "protect the privacy of [student] records by preventing unauthorized access by third parties." "I don't think enough parents, and I definitely don't think enough students recognize what's happening to student data. And, we need some form of accountability," Khaliah Barnes, an EPIC attorney tells the Voice. "We know that there is value in having information and analyzing progress. But in order to do that effectively you can't remove all privacy protections." Both inBloom and NYSED tell the Voice that privacy protection paramount. "Our security practices meet the highest industry standards," an inBloom spokesperson said in a statement to the Voice. "As in any system, no security protections can be 100 [percent] guaranteed, but it's important to realize that in the current state of affairs, student data is often stored locally, with weaker security protections, multiple login credentials and greater potential for data breaches."
Dunn says that NYSED will roll out a full information campaign about the EDP for parents and students before the new portal is launched. He also points out that information about the inBloom-powered EDP is available on NYSED's website, in news releases, and on agenda items for regents meetings. Haimson says that NYSED has hardly made any real efforts to disseminate information to the public about the portal. In fact, she says that the only reason why some parents know anything about inBloom is because she's been shouting about it for over a year now. Numerous requests from her and other concerned advocates to meet with the state and NYSED officials to discuss the scope of the EDP initiative have been denied, she says. Hundreds of emails and phone calls from parents seeking to opt of their kid's out of the data portal have gone largely ignored. Haimson says NYSED has only grown slightly more responsive over time because of growing outrage against the EDP. "One of my huge frustrations here is getting the word out because as soon as a parent gets a glimpse of what's going...they'll be necessarily outraged and terrified and inflamed to some kind of action," Molly Wulkowicz, whose child attends Midtown West public school, tells the Voice. "The problem is nobody knows that this is happening." Wulkowicz is disturbed by the fact there's such little awareness and conversation about the new EDP at Midtown West, where there are many affluent parents. Thus, she can only imagine what less affluent public school parents know about the initiative. She's even more disturbed by the fact Wireless Generation, a subsidiary company of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, was contracted to build the infrastructure of the inBloom database system. The subsidiary ed-tech company, now called Amplify, is run by former New York City public school chancellor, Joel Klein. Of course, News Corporation's issues with privacy have been well publicized in recent years. "It's hard not to sound like you're totally paranoid because it sounds so far out. People literally think you're a paranoid disturbed person because how could this be happening," Wulkowicz says. "Joel Klein and Rupert Murdoch don't get involved in things like this because they're altruists." Dunn stressed the fact that Wireless Generation has completed its work on the project and will not handle any student data. NYSED's reassurances aren't enough for many observers. Last week, Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell introduced a bill that would prohibit student information from being shared with third-party vendors without consent. "Students and parents have the fundamental right to privacy and control over their own information," O'Donnell said in a statement. "Under this bill, student information cannot be disclosed without explicit parental consent, and students' needs will once again be prioritized over those of the private companies seeking to profit from our children."